A good night's sleep can help you tackle whatever the day holds. But if you often wake up tired and headachy or feel very sleepy during the day, you may have obstructive sleep apnea. One in 5 adults suffers from at least sleep apnea, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Sleep apnea occurs when muscles in the back of your neck repeatedly collapse during sleep and constrict the airway. This can interrupt breathing many times per hour, which disrupts deep, restorative sleep.
Am I at risk for sleep apnea?
People often assume the disorder affects only older, overweight men who snore, since loud snoring is a common symptom. However, anyone can suffer from sleep apnea, even children. Weight can contribute to the condition, but so can other factors such as age and narrow airways due to physical features of the neck, mouth and jaw.
Common signs of sleep apnea
Loud snoring is the most well‐known symptom of sleep apnea, but there are many other signs and symptoms of this condition that may go unrecognized. The AHA lists common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, many of which are similar to other sleep disorders:
- Loud snoring
- Stopped breathing or gasping for air during sleep
- Waking up with a dry mouth
- Morning headaches
- Difficulty sleeping or excessive sleepiness
- Irritability or trouble paying attention while awake
Depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction may also be indicators of sleep apnea.
Diagnosing sleep apnea
Undiagnosed sleep apnea is dangerous. When breathing stops, oxygen levels drop, and adrenaline and blood pressure surge. This raises one's risk for high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. Sleep apnea also weakens blood flow to the brain, leading to problems like daytime sleepiness, depression, anxiety and memory problems, according to researchers at the UCLA School of Nursing. These scientists also found sleep apnea harms women's brains more than men's.
If you have symptoms of sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about an overnight sleep study.
Sleep apnea treatments
If apnea is diagnosed, you may be able to ease symptoms by losing weight, avoiding sedatives, cutting back on alcohol and smoking, and trying to sleep on your side.
Some people benefit from using an oral appliance to reposition the jaw and tongue to open air passages and improve sleep. For immediate and consistent relief, your doctor may prescribe a CPAP machine that keeps airways open by delivering air pressure through a mask that fits over your nose or mouth while you sleep. In the worst cases, surgery may be needed to remove excess tissue in the upper airways.